UA seeks opportunity in autonomous cars

The College of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s self-driving car.

The University of Arizona Tech Parks lost out on becoming a federal testing site for autonomous vehicles last month, but they are not giving up.

The parks will continue testing and developing autonomous vehicles and systems with hopes of being a part of a global network for self-driving cars.

“Our goal at the Tech Parks is to be a major testing and demonstration site for this new technology,” said Bruce A. Wright, associate vice president at the UA Tech Parks. “We have not given up, we hope that there will be a second round of designations and we can be a candidate for that.”

This technology will change the roads we drive on every day. Autonomous cars will lead to a variety of advancements not only in the cars we will drive but the roads we drive them on.

“We have to design roads differently if we are going to highly use autonomous vehicles,” Wright said.

This new type of road is called a smart road or highway. Roads will be widened and fitted with sensors that communicate with  the autonomous vehicles driving on them.

Professor Jonathan Sprinkle is spearheading the development of autonomous vehicles at the UACollege of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Autonomous vehicles are fitted with components that talk to each other allowing the car to drive by itself. By using cameras and radar — or LIDAR, which is light detection and ranging — these components communicate to a computer to allow a car to drive itself.

The general parts used in an autonomous vehicle. Infographic by Michael Vitiritti

UA Tech Parks plan to relate autonomous technology to other fields in the future. 

Although most people focus on the passenger car, Wright said there are opportunities for the technology to benefit dedicated freight lanes and drones.

“In five years we should see a car that is almost completely autonomous, and in 10 years cars will have the technology to be fully autonomous,” Sprinkle said.

One problem researchers face with self-driving cars is the way they feel to people inside the car.

“Riding in an autonomous vehicle is kind of like being in a car with someone who is just learning how to drive,” Sprinkle said.

“The first time I saw the wheel move by itself, I felt a little unsettled,” added Kevin Croneigh, a senior engineering student. “However, I began to trust the car after a while.”

However, Sprinkle said researchers are working on a solution. They want the autonomous vehicle’s computer to learn from drivers and mimic the way they drive — adjusting acceleration, braking and turning accordingly to make drivers feel more at home.

Another interesting aspect of self-driving cars is what the car can do for its owner. Sprinkle explains that you will be able to drive your car on a mountain road, but that your car can go and get an oil change by itself.

Louis Vitiritti is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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